Turn the Words Off

I concluded the previous essay, Togo’s Story, with “turn off the words to tune in and return to animal mindfulness.”  What happens when the words cannot be turned off?  Anxiety is a disability where negative words in a mind affect emotion and behavior.[1]

I took a class last year on writing an advanced directive for health care.  It was given in a conference room at my HMO that was also used for cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) training.  On the wall was a poster outlining this method of helping people with anxiety disorders.  CBT begins with the negative words in a patient’s mind, words that the patient cannot turn off, and teaches the student that those words are inaccurate and debilitating, and then how to gradually replace them with a new set of positive words.  This breaks the positive feedback and reduces anxiety.

Anxiety is an example of a neural positive feedback system with increasing effects – anxiety begets anxiety – neurotics have trouble turning the words off.  Words in a patient’s mind representing the emotional state of anxiety are repeated incessantly reinforcing the anxiety.  The new learned words of CBT are a feedback correction attempting to dampen and control the anxiety response system.

The conscious word processing mind – my ‘reportorial I’ – is able to observe the learning/feedback system in operation.  Those words are not the system, only the observer of it.  Other animals have the same learning/feedback system but without words.  The word system is built upon this more ancient substrate.

Anxiety is not so much a defect of the word system but of the cross-connection between the emotional system to and from the word system.  Schizophrenia affects the perceptual and verbal systems.  Schizophrenics are tormented by visions, delusions, or voices among other symptoms.  They too cannot turn off the words:

“As I considered the voice I heard talking to me in my own head, it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening was, more or less, a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness, one which was not verbal itself but which was capable of understanding ideas that either did or didn’t use a verbal form, and which was, in fact, the actual seat and locus of my real awareness. In other words: the prefrontal cortex was like a separate being….”[2]

Eric Coates, while describing his schizophrenia, nailed my conscious verbal mind and its unconscious substrate.  I have read and reread that quote, and marvel at how well he describes what I have been writing about.  While trying to understand schizophrenia he clearly perceived the cross-connections between the word conscious and the pre-word conscious animal minds: a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness.[3]

I used a different conceptualization: “Central to the old concept of the conscious mind is the ego, the ‘I’, the self.  Even to the point of thinking of the conscious mind as a homunculus[4] residing at the center of the brain thinking, understanding, explaining, controlling, or watching.  I, I, I – the center of my mental life.”[5]  Both Coates’ parasite and my homunculus are descriptive of our experience with words in the mind.

The brain talking to itself – this is another description of cognitive behavior therapy.  That is a feedback loop and feedback can go either positive or negative.  In anxiety the feedback becomes positive and the contents – the words – of the loop become the reality.  The neurotic is trapped – the circle of negative thoughts prevents the admission of evidence that would conflict with the anxiety ridden conclusion.  Positive thoughts and evidence to support them are suppressed or filtered out until the filter is forcibly over-ridden by a therapist who establishes new words in the patient’s mind.  When the negative words are in full spate the patient is taught to bring those words to the foreground.  This breaks the positive feedback loop of anxiety, alters the cognition and thereby the emotional state of the patient.

Anxiety is an emotional state characterized by inaccurate words that cannot be turned off.  Words arise out of Coates’ “more basic and earlier level of consciousness,”  become conscious to the ‘reportorial I’ – that observer of the more basis level of consciousness – and return to it as new input information.  Other animals may have anxiety disorders without the words.[6]  But they do not have schizophrenia – that appears to be related to the later development of the brain and its word processing system.

I can also answer my opening question “what happens when the words cannot turn off” with the obvious answer “well, then, write them down.”  I am not anxious so the feedback loop of emotion to word and back to emotion is working OK.  I am not schizophrenic so my prefrontal cortex is not malfunctioning.  I could say that I am neither neurotic nor schizophrenic so I can trust the words in my mind to be true.  Well, maybe, maybe not.

Emotions can generate words in my conscious mind – words can express, increase or decrease emotions.  Stories can generate emotion – reaching back into that more basic and earlier level of consciousness to trigger memories and associations that carry emotional freight.  Emotion may or may not be reasonable.  Biologists have assigned mankind the designation Homo sapiens: wise man.  We may be more emotional than wise and words make this possible.  Words arise out of our emotions as the effects thereof and return thereunto as effectors.  Words are the foundation of our emotional lability which may be greater than that of our fellow animals: we can turn emotions on and off merely with words.  They cannot.  Their emotions are honest – ours may not be.  Stories can create the entire range of emotions out of nothing more substantial than words.  This makes us subject to emotional manipulation and to a variety of social control mechanisms.   Our emotional lability underlies our hypersociality and our tribalisms.  It underpins drama, literature, art, and music.  It unites us and divides us.

I listen to those words in my reportorial I and watch as they morph as they are formed, that is, there is not a one-to-one mapping of the precursor thought into words: words wiggle, they refuse to lie down on the page.  I wrestle with them until I am tired and in defeat I leave them lie to be what they are.  How can I presume truth in words that will not lie down until I quit?

The problem is even more complex.  Psychological experiments have shown that the operation of our basic level of consciousness is not particularly reliable.  A Nobel Prize in Economics was won by Daniel Kahneman for a series of experiments performed together with Amos Tversky which clearly demonstrated that the human mind[7] uses a variety of guesses, approximations, or short-cuts to control behavior and develop thought.  They summarize these processes as heuristics: problem solving techniques which may be hard-wired, learned, or a combination.  The errors in judgment occasioned by these heuristics are cognitive biases.[8]  These errors are pervasive, hard to discover and to compensate for.[9]  But they are sufficient for survival and reproduction.  They are our old animal mind.

Out of that mind arise the questions of motivation and the problems of path dependency: these are some of the limitations on my thinking.  Let me try to put some of this together into one paragraph:

My sensory system continually inputs information from my experience into my nervous system.  Most of that information is filtered out, some is retained for immediate use, and some is kept for future use – memory.  The structures of the filters are based upon the survival rules for H. sapiens developed over millions of years of evolution – genetics – modified by the experience of up to about three generations of my immediate ancestors – epigenetics, and further modified by my personal life experience – history.  Included in this experience are the effects of social class and education.  The material available for thought – for pattern creation and matching – is much reduced by the filters and further reduced by the vagaries of my memory.  This is pre-verbal and how that portion of my mind operates is a bit of a mystery.  I can only assume the inputs, observe the output, and infer the connections.  The output is available to me in emotions and words – I have concentrated upon the words and stories and noted that they do not have a one-to-one correspondence to thoughts – they change, wiggle and morph as they form.  The most important observations are that I experience a mental reward upon their formation, I find them to be fascinating, and to be true.  Yet I know them to be personal and path dependent.

It gets worse.  In the spring of 1961, I rode my bicycle to the beach intending to fulfill the mandate of evangelicalism, to spread the Gospel, to preach the Word of Truth to the world and make converts to the true religion.  Twenty minutes later I rode my bicycle away from the beach an atheist.  What does this conversion, the nearly instantaneous rewiring of my brain, imply about its operation and perception of truth?


Words and the stories of which they are made are functional rather than truthional.  Our nervous systems convert perception to behavior via guesses and approximations which are sufficiently accurate that we survive and reproduce (perhaps altogether too well).  When we make a decision, execute a behavior, or create a story in accord with those survival rules we get a brain reward.  Of this reward we make truth.

But out of all of this mess we have created an astounding body of surprisingly accurate knowledge.


I am at a fork in the train of my thought with one path leading toward truth and the other toward knowledge – toward certitude and scientia – and my recognition and assertion that they are not the same.  They arise out of different motivations, solve different problems, have different narrative arcs, developed at different times, and use different heuristics yet have the same rewards.

At one time certitude was sufficient.  It was derived from our survival rules via those sub-conscious heuristics and the effect of the consequent cognitive biases was positive:  we survived and reproduced with them.  Then came a time when those old truths were no longer sufficient, and new truths and methods of deriving them were developed.  But those old truths based upon the ancient heuristics did not fade away and disappear, they are still operative.  The resultant cognitive dissonance – truth vs. knowledge – certitude vs. scientia – has been the source of personal and social strife ever since.

I will begin a new set of essays on certitude and scientia, and their furious divorce.  Or is the problem an assumed marriage – maybe even a forced marriage?  Then there is the problem of emotional lability and social control.  I have another story or two or more to tell.

[1] This is one way of conceptualizing anxiety disorders.  I use it in this essay for the concept of feedback loops in the brain. In later essays I will develop the idea that the ego – the self, that homunculus or parasite – is an observer of some of these loops.  And then that these loops have – and require – special properties.

[2] https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/07/voices-in-our-heads-prefrontal-cortex-parasite/.

[3] I now have two closely related concept sets – words expressing the conscious word processing faculty and Coates’ non-verbal consciousness which I have mostly called my unconscious mind.  I think I have another essay building in my mind but it is not yet well-developed.

[4] Or a soul, a separable incorporeal component surviving the body and carrying with it the ‘I’ thereby cheating death of its final victory.

[5] Discovery: Terra Incognito

[6] There is, so far as I know, no evidence that other animals can form mental symbols – words.  Per Coates’ formulation their nervous systems may be able to understand our words but they do not generate their own words.  I have considered the possibility of precursor mental processes but this would be difficult to establish.  Our verbal response to anxiety appears to be a cross-connection between our verbal and emotional systems.  Both emotion and cognition may be converted into words and words into cognition and emotion.  This expands my notion of a word transliteration module which I presume other animals do not have.

[7] That part of the human mind is Coates’ more basic and earlier level of consciousness.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

[9] An internet search on ‘cognitive biases and heuristics’ or ‘thinking fast and slow’ will return a variety of articles.  This is a short summary: https://www.pendletonpsych.com/doc/thinking-fast-and-slow.pdf